Darjeeling tea: now savour the flavour of Gorkhaland

Darjeeling, often referred to as The Queen of the Hills, boasts of around 87 tea estates spread across 16,000 hectares with an approximate workforce of 150,000, he said.

india Updated: Feb 03, 2009 15:47 IST

The best-known teas of India are acquiring a political flavour. When aficionados of tea from the gardens of Makaibari, Castleton or Orange Vallee sip their morning cuppa after March 7, the flavour will be the same, but the branding may change - from 'Darjeeling' to 'Gorkhaland'.

This is the demand being made by the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM), which is agitating for a separate Gorkhaland state carved out of the hills in northern West Bengal.

"The packs should carry the line 'Darjeeling Tea - The Flavour of Gorkhaland'," GJM general secretary Roshan Giri told IANS.

"Our people are talking to tea garden owners and it will be labelled differently from March 7," Giri asserted.

Darjeeling, often referred to as The Queen of the Hills, boasts of around 87 tea estates spread across 16,000 hectares with an approximate workforce of 150,000, he said.

Darjeeling accounts for seven percent of India's tea exports, with the region churning out about 10 million kilograms of high-quality brews.

"Around 10-11 million kilograms of Darjeeling tea is produced every year, out of which six to seven million kilograms is exported," S. Patra, joint secretary of tea garden owners' body Indian Tea Association, told IANS.

Darjeeling tea is widely exported to Britain, the US, Japan and Germany, besides many other destinations.

India exported total 189 million kilogram tea worth Rs.18.89 billion (Rs.1,889 crore) in 2007-08 and it has set an export target of 195-200 million kilograms in the current fiscal.

The GJM also demanded that the 'tea tax', which is now paid by the tea garden owners to the West Bengal government, be paid to the GJM from March 7.

"They have to pay us the tax from March 7, which they till now paid to the state government. We will use that fund for our democratic movement," Giri said.

Asked how much tax they intend to levy on tea traders, he said: "We haven't chalked out any figure yet. We will do it soon."

However, the Darjeeling tea industry denied receiving any such diktat from the GJM.

"Their demands are preposterous. The Darjeeling tea logo cannot be altered under any circumstances. While we got to hear about such demands being raised about two weeks back, no formal intimation has come from the GJM," Sanjay Bansal, chairman of Darjeeling Tea Association, told IANS.

He also ruled out any move by the industry to negotiate with the agitators.

Bansal said the planters in Darjeeling are meeting the labour unions mid-February to discuss labour-related issues.

"If the agitators have some demands, they can tell us at the meeting, which could then be taken up with the state government," Bansal said.

The GJM has also demanded that the tea auction centre in Kolkata be shifted to Darjeeling.

Raja Banerjee, owner of Makaibari Tea Estate, also spoke on similar lines. "We have no official intimation from the GJM on both the issues yet," he told IANS.

Regarding paying tax to the GJM, Banerjee said: "There are many ifs and buts into it. But we can only decide once we hear from the GJM in this regard."

The 150-year-old Makaibari tea estate is located at the foothills of the Himalayan mountains in Kurseong across 636.99 hectares (1574 acres). Tea is however grown only on 222.585 hectares and the rest is primary virgin forest, he said.

The annual production from Makaibari is to the tune of 120 tonnes, out of which 70 percent is exported, Banerjee added.

First Published: Feb 03, 2009 15:44 IST